All around the world, from Sierra Leone to Sri Lanka, the violent legacy of colonialism can still be witnessed
By Richard Gott, The Guardian UK
Many of the present conflicts in the world take place in the former colonial territories that Britain abandoned, exhausted and impoverished, in the years after the second world war. This disastrous imperial legacy is still highly visible, and it is one of the reasons why the British empire continues to provoke such harsh debate. If Britain made such a success of its colonies, why are so many in an unholy mess half a century later, major sources of violence and unrest?
Top of the list is Palestine, a settler colony that Britain abandoned in 1947 after barely 30 years, having imposed a population of mostly European settlers on the indigenous people – one of the typical characteristics of imperial rule. Unfortunately for the settlers, arriving during the imperial sunset, they had insufficient time to achieve the scale of defeat of the local people, amounting to extermination and genocide, that characterised the British conquest and settlement of Australia.
While the native peoples of Australia, drunk and demoralised, survive in shanty towns or reservations, those in Palestine have had some capacity to struggle against such a fate, organising a lasting resistance to the settlers, inspired by their own ancient religion and sustained by the support of a vast Arab hinterland. The Australian settlers suffer from little more than a guilty conscience – if that- while the Israelis face a permanent and ineradicable threat. Like the medieval crusaders, whose ruined castles dominate the landscape of the eastern Mediterranean, they will be lucky if their state lasts more than a century. Many will surely abandon ship in despair.
A similar imperial trouble spot is Sierra Leone, another settler colony where the British imposed an alien, largely Christian, black population from Britain and Canada on to a congeries of native peoples already in thrall to Islam. The original colony dates back to the 18th century, but much of the country was secured through military conquest at the end of the 19th, to which there was energetic resistance. The recurrence of civil war, though suffocated recently by a return of British troops, remains a permanent probability.
Other victims of settler colonialism where unresolved problems survive from the time of empire include South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, and of course the tragic statelet of Northern Ireland. In these countries the settlers are all now on the back foot, outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, yet the baneful legacy of the colonial regime – in social customs, and in the forms of government designed to protect settler society – lives on. Much unfinished business remains. Settler colonies of a marginally different kind were established in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Fiji, the victims of continuing trouble. In both islands workers from India were imported in the 19th century for the white-owned plantations, creating the basis for an endless civil war that can never be resolved. Here, as elsewhere, endemic violence and conflict have proved to be the lasting legacy of empire.
In India itself Britain’s speedy and disastrous scuttle in 1947 led to partition and the creation of the “moth-eaten” Muslim state of Pakistan (and eventually of Bangladesh), making nonsense of two centuries of British dominion designed to maintain the unity of the subcontinent. Abandoning India without a clear and agreed decision on the future of the princely state of Kashmir has created a scenario of disaster that has lasted from that day to this.
One troubled imperial outpost, often forgotten and now brought to life as a temporary haven for refugees from Lebanon, is Cyprus, miserably divided like India as a result of imperial misrule, and still under British military surveillance today from two “sovereign” bases.
Others are Nigeria and Somalia, the first unnaturally cobbled together in a unitary state for imperial convenience, the second occupied and abandoned for purely strategic reasons. Both are currently simmering on the stove.
Finally come Iraq and Afghanistan, two modern disasters that have their roots in the experience of empire. Iraq was last in and first out of the British empire, though British military bases were not finally removed until the 1950s. Fifty years later the British are back, British soldiers replacing the Indian sepoys who invaded the country on Britain’s behalf during the first world war. The British left in a hurry in the 1930s, and they will doubtless do so again.
Although nominally independent, Afghanistan was effectively within the imperial sphere for most of the 19th century, though successfully fighting three wars of resistance against the British. The fourth Anglo-Afghan war is now in progress, to be followed as before by an Afghan triumph.
It seems that the story of the empire is being re-enacted over much of the globe, bringing violence and destruction on a scale barely envisaged in the imperial era. How fortunate we would be to have a government in Britain that would help to bind up the wounds of the past, by at least recognising what really happened, rather than to have one that endlessly pours petrol on the flames.
· Richard Gott is author of Cuba: A New History, and is writing a book about imperial resistance Rwgott@aol.com